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Coronavirus and Africa – A Rapid and Progressive Response in Gabon

Coronavirus and Africa – A Rapid and Progressive Response in Gabon
 Michaël Cheylan
Contributor on African issues

With only 120 cases reported as of April 20 and one death, Gabon has so far been relatively spared by Covid-19. This has not prevented the authorities from quickly implementing preventive measures: President Ali Bongo declared a state of health emergency on April 9. How might the situation evolve? How is the government responding? What might the economic consequences be? Michaël Cheylan, President of Corrèze & Zambèze and contributor on African issues at Institut Montaigne, answers our questions.

What is the current health situation in Gabon? How might it evolve in the coming weeks?

The first positive case was diagnosed in mid-March. As of April 20, the country had registered 120 cases of patients tested positive for Covid-19. The spread of the epidemic is therefore relatively contained in Gabon. Some mathematical models, such as the one developed by Imperial College London, suggest the possibility of 2,051,004 cases of infection, out of a total population of 2,225,728. In other words, the model points to a potential infection of 92% of the population, including 39,934 cases of hospitalization and 5,726 deaths. While the future is unpredictable, this extreme scenario seems unlikely given the current evolution of the epidemic, the early measures taken on by the authorities, and the age pyramid in Gabon, which is similar to other African countries. More than 60% of the African population is under the age of 25, compared to 17% in Europe, and the number of obesity cases is relatively low.

In addition, the average level of healthcare infrastructure in Gabon is relatively high compared to the rest of Africa. In the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2019 ranking, which takes into account aspects of health, as well as other indicators such as education, Gabon ranks 115th in the world, but 3rd in continental sub-Saharan Africa.

What is the government's strategy to combat the epidemic?

Gabon's strategy can be summarized in two words: responsiveness and progressiveness. The authorities sought to intervene as early as possible by multiplying, and subsequently tightening preventive measures. These included screening at the airport with thermoflash temperature checks, boat quarantines, closure of land borders as soon as the first cases appeared in neighbouring countries, closure of air and sea borders (excluding the movement of goods), closure of institutions open to the public as well as a partial curfew between 8pm and 6am. It went as far as the April 10th announcement of the lockdown of Greater Libreville – both of the capital and the neighbouring communes, where about 95% of the cases are concentrated. Such a measure limits the risk of the virus spreading into the provinces. The level of healthcare infrastructures being much lower than in the Global North, Gabon’s overall strategy has focused on prevention rather than treatment.

In addition, Gabon has expanded its healthcare and diagnostic capacity, increasing the number of testing centres from 1 to 4. To keep from overwhelming the hospitals, a toll-free number, 1410, has also been set up for people experiencing symptoms. Moreover the country has put in place a tracing strategy for all contact cases (people who have been in contact with cases identified as positive). Once identified, these persons are immediately placed in quarantine for fourteen-days. This strategy is not unlike France’s method of cluster detection at the beginning of the epidemic.

To avoid overwhelming hospitals, a toll-free number, 1410, has been set up for people experiencing symptoms, paired with a tracing strategy for all contact cases.

Finally, the Gabonese authorities have announced their intention to carry out large-scale tests for the population, although it is not known if and when they will be able to do so. So far, 1,150 people have been tested (vs 632 on April 12) since the detection of the first case in mid-March. The authorities have also decided to manufacture their own hydro-alcoholic gels in a factory in the Nkok SEZ. They have also ordered ventilators, masks, protective gear, test kits and other necessary equipment from China. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, made a donation to the Gabonese authorities, though this represents only a fraction of the orders placed, which were delivered throughout March. China has also been assisting Gabon with technical support throughout the implementation of these measures.

Is the population supportive of the government’s measures?

On the whole, the public understands the gravity of the threat. In order to build trust and combat misinformation, Gabon has set up a daily update on the evolution of the epidemic, run by the Secretary General of the Ministry of Health, Dr Guy-Patrick Obiang Ndong. Transparency is essential for ensuring public support and avoiding panic. However on the ground, barrier measures were not always respected fully. As a consequence, President Ali Bongo Ondimba declared a state of health emergency on April 9, and a lockdown for Great Libreville starting April 12.

Is the healthcare system resilient enough to cope with the epidemic?

Gabon has some of the better health infrastructures per capita on the content, with well-trained medical staff. In fact, the very first infected patient in the country was successfully cured in the Akanda army training hospital, and others are in the process of recovery. The only registered death at the time of writing is that of a patient who, returning from France, also suffered from diabetes. It should also be noted that Gabon has four analytical laboratories, including a Level 4 one, which is uncommon in Africa. It also hosts the Franceville International Medical Research Centre (CIRMF), which is world-renowned in the field of tropical infectious diseases.

What will the economic impact of the coronavirus be in Gabon?

A priori, there will be a decrease in expected growth between 0.3 and 2.7% (as opposed to the initially predicted +4%) and an estimated drop in government revenue of 230 to 645 billion CFA francs, depending on the scenario. Customs duties are falling due to the slowdown in trade, as are revenues from exports of raw materials. Gabon is hit by the oil crisis (as an OPEC member producing 0.2 million barrels per day) and timber exports are also suffering. On the other hand, manganese, of which the country is one of the world's main producers, is relatively unscathed for the time being.

However, like many countries, Gabon will be compensated by additional multilateral aid from the IMF and the World Bank, and bilateral aid, from the European Union and China.

On April 3, the Head of State announced a massive aid plan of 250 billion CFA francs to support the population and businesses. If that plan is to succeed, a moratorium on the repayment of foreign aid and recourse to more loans will be inevitable. It should be noted that at the end of 2019, the country’s debt was equivalent to 60% of GDP.

According to economists, overcoming the crisis might need as much as 8% of the GDP in new funding. As in Europe and everywhere else in the world, the central bank has a decisive role to play.

What are the main measures expected from the authorities?

Beyond healthcare, there are very high expectations in terms of social and economic care, because the social safety nets we know in Europe are almost non-existent in Africa. However, Gabon is still less vulnerable than other countries on the continent, because of its relatively more developed social security system, as well as its employment structure, which places great emphasis on the public sector. The country has a total of 100,000 civil servants, i.e. a ratio of 55 per 1,000 inhabitants, one of the highest figures in Africa. Civil servants are not at risk of unemployment and continue to receive 100% of their salaries.

President Ali Bongo announced that the state would assume responsibility for water and electricity bills, free transport for the most vulnerable, the suspension of rent payments and the establishment of food banks.

In his public address at the beginning of April, President Ali Bongo announced that the state would assume responsibility for water and electricity bills, free transport for the most vulnerable, the suspension of rent payments and the establishment of food banks, among other measures. In short, everything that concerns daily emergencies and protects, to a certain extent, those who work in the informal sector, which represents between 40 and 50% of the country's GDP.

Meanwhile, measures have been announced for businesses, such as deferred charges, loan repayments, cash-flow facilities and tax relief, and the protection of jobs, with the introduction of a technical unemployment allowance to cover 50 to 70% of gross monthly salary excluding bonuses.

On paper, this aid plan is ambitious. What is required now is its effective and rapid implementation.

Companies, both domestic and international, expect the Gabonese authorities to honour its commitments. Their credibility is at stake. Any other attitude would be economically costly. It would be interpreted as a failure to pay, which would deprive the country, during and after the crisis, of new financing. The risks are also political, at a time when the ruling elites have recently been renewed in key decision-making positions.




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